French Immersion teacher Julie Fisher goes through books as she cleans shelves to get ready for the new school year at Reynolds secondary school.

Labour dispute on back burner for school year

The relationship between B.C. teachers and government remains on the mend, but a new teachers’ contract has put discord on temporary hiatus

The relationship between B.C. teachers and government remains on the mend, but a new teachers’ contract has put discord on temporary hiatus as schools in Greater Victoria open this week – although not everyone was celebrating.

“It’s mixed emotions for sure,” said Sean Hayes, president of the Saanich School District Teachers’ Association. “It’s relief that we’re entering the school year in a much more settled state with the prospects of a quiet and relatively peaceful year.

“That’s a relief, but we’re also not happy because the major issues for teachers remain unchanged: oversized classes, poor support for special needs students and dwindling resources.”

After a year of stalled contract negotiations and six months of work-to-rule job action culminating in a walkout last March, B.C.’s 41,000 public school teachers came to a collective agreement on June 26.

The short-term contract, which is valid until June 2013, offers some degree of relief for Hayes. But others, such as Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Tara Ehrcke, stands vehemently against the plan.

Though unlikely, the possibility exists of job disruptions through the fall, Ehrcke said.

“There will be a lot of teachers returning to school this fall with a real sense of disappointment and we’re also going to see some larger classes than we’ve seen in a number of years,” Ehrcke said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see individual teachers taking a step back from some extracurricular activities, simply because they have larger classes and more responsibilities.”

Although teachers are happy to be heading back to work fully and completely, Hayes said, they are upset about how the last round of bargaining went.

“There may be a little holdover,” he added.

During an Aug. 28 teleconference, Education Minister George Abbott said he was hoping for a much more positive, harmonious year in terms of labour relations.

“We do have the second year of the two-year agreement still to go,” Abbott said. “That will likely see, perhaps in March or April, a recommencement of bargaining discussions, but I’m hoping that this year gives us an opportunity to try to build at least a little better relationship between government and the teachers’ federation and between government educational partners, including the teachers’ federation.”

Abbott will not be involved in much of those discussions, however, since after 16 years as an MLA, he announced Thursday that he would not seek re-election in the spring.

“We’ve been in the same drama for 40 years,” Thomas Fleming, University of Victoria professor emeritus in education, said in an interview earlier this year.

“Teachers complaining about government; government saying teachers are withholding services. The dialogue doesn’t change; the actors don’t change. Essentially this dialogue is no dialogue. It’s not going any place. It’s a system built for another age.”

Despite the history of unrest at the provincial level, teachers and administrators are expecting a relatively calm school year across the region.

After 11 years as superintendent of the Greater Victoria School District, John Gaiptman said 2011-12 was by far the most difficult year in the role, and like others on both sides of the dispute, he’s looking forward to a smoother road ahead.

“Last year was a tough year on everybody,” Gaiptman said. “This year we are really focused on the important things and the important thing is creating classes that are flexible and relevant and engaging for our students … that will be the reason for any actions we take.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com